By Maeva Chargros
“It wasn’t built to be a viral campaign or a hashtag that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. It was a catchphrase to be used from survivor to survivor to let folks know that they were not alone and that a movement for radical healing was happening and possible.” (Huffington Post)
Me Too. Two words that seemed brand new last year (in 2017), when Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and many other (social) media were submerged with the now famous and symbolic ‘hashtag’. The most disturbing part of this ‘movement’ (or ‘phenomenon’ as it is sometimes called) might be its lack of “newness”. Unfortunately, there was nothing unusual, nothing unfamiliar about it… except maybe its scope, and of course its prolonged effects. So, where did this Me Too movement really originate from? What can be said about it, one year later? But most importantly, how can we respond to this movement within the academic world? Though such questions would definitely deserve a couple of books each (at least!), I decided to try and gather some answers.
Statistics: Too Much Hasn’t Been Enough Yet!
The answer to the first question is rather easy to find with just a few clicks: Tarana Burke. Perhaps you were expecting another name, though? The truth is, the “Me Too movement” was founded by this lady 12 years ago, in 2006. Back then, hashtags weren’t really a thing yet. Back then, the movement was created to help “women of colour from low wealth communities” in the USA who were survivors of sexual assaults. The original aim reflects on the current one: giving these women a voice, a platform to talk and feel empowered by feeling less alone. This shows how little improvement was made in the past decade regarding women’s rights. It is welcomed as a major milestone that Saudi Arabia allows women to drive a car, while the activists behind such a “milestone” are still imprisoned, without much concern expressed from the international community. Nevertheless, if there is a fundamental right that women still don’t have anywhere in the world, it is the right to live their lives free of sexual assault. Yes, there are male victims. It is important to note, though, the unparalleled statistics of female victims. This is the first key to understanding the Me Too movement: numbers.
In France, a country that recently made the headlines due to a new set of laws aiming at tackling the issue of violence against women in the public space, the public opinion was “shocked” when in 2015 the media broke the news: 100% of women in this country have been victims of sexual assault in public transport (source). The French public opinion must be largely composed of men, since it was no surprise for women… In a case-study focused on the city of Bordeaux and conducted by a team of sociologists in 2015, we can read that 80% of them were victims of such assaults at least twice. Still in France, according to the National Observatory of Delinquency (INED, in French), 1 victim over 10 reports the assault to the police, and among them, only 1 over 10 will see their perpetrator convicted following a trial. The main reason remains the willingness of judges to avoid a full trial and the constant recommendations victims get from them and their lawyers to reach an “amicable agreement” with their attacker (read more here). The pressure put on the victims is extremely tough, given the fact that French courts and prisons are overcrowded; the main argument used is that it’ll be too difficult for them to face their perpetrator, and after all, it’s their word against their attacker’s, right? Lack of evidence leads to many perpetrators walking free, thus discouraging many victims to initiate legal procedures. Meanwhile, in 2016, 123 women were killed by their partner in France (34 men were killed by their partner, including 3 within a homosexual couple). In the USA, according to the original Me Too movement’s website, since 1998 around 17,700,000 women reported a sexual assault. And if you thought young girls were safe, the “Love is Respect” website destroys this foolish hope quickly: “among female victims of intimate partner violence, 94% of those age 16-19 and 70% of those age 20-24 were victimized by a current or former boyfriend or girlfriend.” These statistics apply to the USA, but the overwhelming truth is that such statistics could apply to any part of the world and they remain tragically high. Especially when we know that only a third of the victims will talk about what happened – most of them will be silenced by shame, fear, or worse, suicide. Recently, another case drew my attention; it involved a policeman, a 4-year-old girl and an immigration centre in the USA. Sickening, yet not even close to unusual in this flood of distressing statistics.
We often say that enough is enough, except this time, too much hasn’t been enough yet apparently.
Language: Are We Linguistically Impaired?
Moving on to another aspect of the issues raised by the Me Too movement and its recent momentum: language. Reading randomly Me Too articles, I have found a few very interesting ones. The last one was focusing on the problem of language and talking about abuse. The author explains how talking about “sex addiction” when there is little scientific evidence for such an addiction harms our entire perception of what is wrong with this behaviour. Indeed, if it’s an addiction, you should be excused, since it becomes a form of chronic illness. The problem is, raping someone is not a matter of addiction, it’s a matter of breaking the law, of assaulting someone else, of committing a crime, and of destroying someone else’s life for no reason other than an incapacity of recognising legal and human boundaries. Another word highlighted by the author is “predator”. Indeed, we often hear “sexual predator” when people discuss the issue of Weinstein and other criminals, but also when talking about men in general and their toxic behaviour in the public (and private) sphere. Yet again, “predator” comes from the animal world and suggests that the person behaving as such can’t do anything to change, it’s beyond their control, like an instinct. With all due respect to animals, men are not that weak, they still have a brain able to control their actions and emotions… I will add to this observation the fact that the media often soften the vocabulary used in their articles and news reports when it comes to this rather complicated topic of sexual abuse. No, dear Mr Journalist, this man was not accused of rubbing his body against a woman’s body: he was accused of rubbing his genitals against her body. Of course, a knee would be worth a formal complaint as well, but then the wording would specify “knee”. If the victim goes through all the trouble of writing and saying “genitals” multiple times throughout the judicial procedure, please break your own comfort zone to say the right words as well.
Therefore, we should change the way we talk and write about abuse, rape, sexual assaults… but also about their perpetrators and victims. This leads me to another topic, digging deeper into how horrific the situation looks like: victim-blaming and rape culture.
Society: From Victim-Blaming to Rape Culture
To better understand the core issue with this part, one only needs to open Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to see it happening live in front of their eyes. Women are told to wear longer dresses, or actually, to wear large trousers to avoid cat-whistling or other forms of street harassment. Women should not look at men in the eyes, they should not go outside alone especially not after this awkwardly unofficial “curfew” hour that changes from city to country. As a woman, you should not provoke your potential attackers. Apparently, whatever happens, it’s the victim’s fault. The attacker just did what he was supposed to do, right?
One of the very rare positive points in this article is that in Sweden, consent recently became a key criterion for rape. This means that threat, force or ‘surprise’ (as it is called in French law) are not necessary anymore to prove a rape occurred. This means, let’s go a little bit further, that the suspected attacker has to prove that the victim had given explicit consent to the full sexual act. Only very few countries in the world have such a legal approach: Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom and now, Sweden.
Now, what is interesting is the debate sparked by this new law in Sweden, summarised in one question and one answer. The question, heard from various men internationally in reaction to this law: “are we going to have to sign a contract before having sex now or what?!”. The answer, given by a Swedish man at a pub during a documentary for the French-German channel Arte: “If you don’t know how to spot consent without drafting a full contract, go back to school, we can’t help you much with that, it’s quite simple!”. It is worth remembering here that Sweden is one of the top countries in the world regarding gender equality, and that little girls and boys are raised as equals at school, in their sport clubs, at home, etc. The high ratio of reported sexual assaults in this country are also interpreted as a consequence of higher trust ratio in the judicial system which is making victims feel safe enough to speak up.
Rape culture is closely linked to victim-blaming or victim-shaming: telling a woman she shouldn’t have dressed this way, and that she was asking for it is not that far from thinking that women mean “yes” when they actually say “no”, and that behaving like a true, real man must include being abusive. Here is one example of rape culture’s effects on the Spanish judicial system, and another one in Italy.
Man Enough? Justin Baldoni & ‘Men Talk’
After this rather long inventory, it is rather easy to understand why the Me Too movement turned from a small wave into a worldwide tsunami of testimonies, cries, demands, call-outs.
In 2017, I came across a video of Justin Baldoni, a guy who used to play very ‘manly’ roles until he decided he was “man enough” just being himself. His short Ted Talk quickly turned into a TV show. He tackles an issue that I find crucial, central actually, to the Me Too movement: men need to create a space for them to talk. As much as we, women, would love to help men with this (please introduce me to a woman who’s never asked a male friend or partner to talk more about his struggles, his thoughts, I highly doubt she exists!), it can only be up to them to do it. The concept of “toxic masculinity” is often perceived as an attack against men and masculinity in general: don’t be fooled! Women want to break this “toxic masculinity” so that men can just be… themselves. How does it feel to be a man who loves fashion and ballet dancing, in a society that decided it was meant for women? How does it feel to be a man who loves poetry and arts, in a society that decided a “true man” should be a man with no emotion, no sensibility, and very little concern for others’ feelings?
It is time to let men be men, meaning, human beings, as complex as they may be(come). If a man feels insecure, if he feels challenged at a personal level (within his relationships, for instance, but also in fatherhood, in his career, in his hopes and dreams), he is currently kindly asked to shut down this part of his brain and to “be strong”. But strength comes in all shapes, colours, sexual orientations, emotions, with or without psychological or physical difficulties. There are as many definitions of “strength” and “bravery” as there are human beings. Never forget communication is essential for all human beings, it is not just a “girl thing”.
In the current situation, saying that there is a huge trust issue between men and women is an understatement. Women all over the world know that they have around 90% of risk of becoming a victim of sexual abuse, and that in almost all possible scenarios, the attacker will most probably be a man (and a man they know!). This is not just a belief based on urban legends: this is a fact we are aware of due to statistics.
Me Too & The Academic World
Now, what about the academic world? What can we do about it as students, teachers, scholars?
Education is not a field where women are a minority. They struggle to reach the top (managing) positions, but they are very much present compared to other sectors. Giving more chances to women to get responsibilities will already be a significant step forward. However, academics should not stop at this first – fundamental – step.
Intellectuals, scientists and artists have often, if not always, been the ones showing the way to progress. Instead of focusing on frantically publishing and counting citation statistics, perhaps they should address this issue and lead by example, once again. Obviously in a respectful and insightful way, avoiding scandalous articles such as the one published in Cherwell, the Oxford media ‘for and by students’. Unfortunately, the case discussed in this post published on Medium also shows how the academic world tends to disregard the victim’s perspective in order to protect the potential – innocent until proven guilty – attacker: who cares if the victim can’t pass due to her trauma, as long as the potential – innocent until proven guilty – attacker is not arrested before the exams period ends…
As an academic, one should think, research, dig deep into the past, current and future challenges, and help the society grow from one tackled problem to another. As a group, the academia should seize the momentum, it should open up debates and discussion spaces, it should address the issues of gender equality, violence against women, LGBTQI+ rights, leaving no shadow to hide for those who feel uncomfortable talking about these topics. For the discomfort they feel is nothing compared to the constant stress, fear and anxiety felt by an overwhelming majority of women in this world. Knowing women’s distress is due to one thing, one little tiny thing: an X chromosome they did not even get to choose and that decided on their future challenges when they were “conceived”, before they were even born. When you’re a woman, there is no “innocent until proven guilty”: you were born a woman, you were born a potential victim, and female victims in the current society are guilty of being victims.
This article was rather difficult to write, and probably difficult to read as well. I sincerely hope it helped you better understand what is behind the Me Too movement: not just tweets, but a dramatic situation.
Fortunately enough, women also have a good sense of humour (we really need it, otherwise we’d have given up centuries ago!). Therefore, as a conclusion to this article, let me recommend you this short video from the BBC.
And now, let’s make those statistics drop, please.
Featured picture credits: #MeToo.